Reviewing the Review: June 25 2006

Internet Culture Politics
It's always good to see Luc Sante show up in the New York Times Book Review, and this week's cover article on Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield does not disappoint. As only the best reviewers do, Sante allows his subject to occupy every bit of space in his article, delivering a fascinating summary that leaves me hungry for more. I'd forgotten how interesting and contradictory this crazed Harvard professor was (on the positive side, Leary had a great wit; on the negative side, he became a willing government witness to save himself from a long jail sentence). All in all, this is a good rollicking read on a Sunday morning.

Talk about rollicking: John Updike contributes an endpaper ominously titled The End of Authorship, which can only mean we're talking about Google again. It's no secret that I revere John Updike, but I'll admit the great author has served up turkeys before (evidence, evidence), and this particular turkey is big enough for Thanksgiving. Updike, having read an article in the New York Times Magazine by Kevin Kelly about the future of books in the age of massively indexed search engines, thinks somebody's trying to make books go away.

Books are actually not going away, of course (evidence, evidence), and in fact there's no reason that printed literature can't co-exist happily and profitably with the internet. Books are incredibly appealing and practical things, and they're not going to go away as long as people continue to buy them. Updike sees a stark battle where there really isn't one, and he embarrasses himself with shrill sentences like this:

"In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscious word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another -- of, in short, accountability and intimacy."

Yawn. Yes, John, in fact a greedy entrepeneur already amassed a fortune by cutting texts up into indexed snippets and reselling them (without permission or payment) under his own insidious brand. His name was John Bartlett. Somehow, though, the world of literature has managed to survive the launch of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations in 1855. Literature will find a way to survive Google too.

Updike is usually quite well-informed, so it's surprising that he doesn't realize this debate already played itself out in Wired and the Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine during the late 1990's (books didn't end then either, and neither did Y2K cripple the world's communications). Search engines will find new ways to promote and cross-reference literature, and the internet industry and the book publishing industry will gradually work out how to make this fair and rewarding for all.

The most insulting part of John Updike's article, though, is here:

"Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile."

Upon reading this, I can only conclude that John Updike has never visited MaudNewton.com or Bookslut or Syntax of Things or Return of the Reluctant or Elegant Variation or Words Without Borders or the Literary Saloon or Metaxu Cafe or Rake's Progress or Ready Steady Book or (I daresay) this humble establishment or any of many worthy others, all of which present carefully edited original commentary and try hard to maintain high standards of quality. If Updike had visited any of these sites, I do not believe he would make generalizations like this. Yo, John ... we're book people here too.

The internet will survive John Updike's cannonade, and John Updike's reputation will certainly survive it too. Now, if you'd like to read some quotes that help explain why so many of us do think John Updike is the greatest, check out this wonderful Nerve interview, which easily makes up for the mess in the Times.

Well, I've certainly worked myself up talking about John Updike. There are a few other nobable pieces in this week's Book Review. Robert Alter approves of Steven B. Smith's Reading Leo Strauss, which takes a fresh look at the surprising legacy of this highly skeptical political critic, who has significantly influenced both liberals and conservatives in different ways. Jonathan Freedland also approves of Noam Chomsky's Failed States, which is more surprising since Chomsky's book presents a harsh critique of the USA's actual record (as opposed to its stated ideals) in foreign policy and governmental justice. Having finished Freedland's review, I think I'm going to have to check this book out (I'll let you know what I find).
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: July 2 2006. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: June 18 2006.
8 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: June 25 2006"

by firecracker on

I'm still with Updike...Although I know you're an Internet guy ... and as such, must stand as the eternal watchdog for any oldster talking smack about your 'hood, I only find that your review of the Review makes me heart Updike even more. I don't think it has anything to do with being well-informed or no ... for all we know he IS Maud Newton ... I think it's probably more simply (and less sinister, oh dear) that dear old Updike doesn't fall for the line that the Internet(s) is(are) the magical solution to the ills of the world and therefore, above reproach. There IS a lot of crap out there, and much of it is just crap. Crap. And some of it isn't. But ... there is a reason why people sarcastically say "what? that's not true? but I read it on the Internet!" So just because there is a quietly fascinating (albeit self-absorbed) lit-blog darling cabal, doesn't change the fact that there are huge steaming piles of crap all over the information superhighway. Up with Updike! Down with crap!

by jamelah on

Up, up with people! Wait, no, that's not what I mean. I just want to say that I'm with Caryn on this one. Not that there isn't great stuff out here on the Internet, but there's also a lot of not great stuff out here as well. There are the the darlings and the blogging superstars and the mass of clamoring voices all vying for attention and getting blogrolled and hoping someone comments on their posts. So there's a wide spectrum and there are good and bad writers on every end. But to me, the Internet, for all of its ability to allow anyone to set up a site in five minutes via Blogspot and start publishing shortly thereafter, is just like any other medium, including big, bad, evil corporate publishing. There are still the people who get read and asked to speak at conferences about how blogging is so cool and it's saving the world and the like, and then there's the vast majority of people out there who aren't. So, sure, even if you've got a coterie of litblogs (or politics blogs or mommy blogs, or Omigod Becky blogs, blah blah blah ad infinitum), that doesn't necessarily mean that the Internet has changed anything for writers, it just means that now there's another medium for them to try to break into and find legitimacy. Definitely not a cure-all, just more of the same, except with broadband.Also, yes, lots and lots of crap.

by brooklyn on

Maybe we can agree that:a) there's a lot of good stuff on the internetb) there's a lot of crap on the internetc) there's a lot of good stuff not on the internetd) there's a lot of crap not on the internetIs the crap/good stuff ratio that much worse on the internet than off the internet? I just don't see that. Okay, so there's a self-congratulatory cabal of litblog darlings running around over-praising each other on the web. Well, there's also a self-congratulatory cabal of book darlings running around over-praising each other in dozens of literary journals. What I find surprising is that a sharp critic like John Updike would deliver a blanket condemnation of an entire medium -- internet-based literature and criticism -- without first taking a serious look at the better examples of this medium. It's one thing, Caryn and Jamelah, when either of you puts down a site you have spent time trying to like. But I continue to suspect that John Updike didn't do his basic research for this article. Again, I can only say I *suspect* this -- I have no way of knowing if he checked out any of the more well-known long-running litblogs or not. If he did, I'd be really surprised to find that he still thinks the internet amounts to a pile of crap, and I'd very much like to ask him to stack up ten of his favorite literary journals to ten of these websites and point out the difference. I've spent time with the journals and the websites, and as far as I can tell the main difference is that the websites tend to be fresher.

by firecracker on

First of all ... Jamelah, I cannot believe you'd say such a thing about Omigod Becky blogs!! Omigod Becky blogs are the only real clarion notes of truth about society today and have never been paralleled by any other method or medium -- past, present or future! Otherwise, yes I agree.Now, Levi, back to you ... while I don't think I ever said there wasn't a ton of CRAP offline (mmm words in my mouth), the ratio of crap instantly, readily and overpoweringly available on the Internet(s) is in my experience much greater than offline. Not that that is really saying a whole lot, because I find most things craptastic, at best. Perhaps this is also due to the underlying notion that we all have to love everything on the Internet(s) because it's so... real, man. (insert manifesto interlude of arrogant e-hipsters likening themselves to Paul Revere) I don't buy it. I don't read Updike's words (as shrill as you may find them) to be a complete condemnation of an entire medium ... I think he's essentially making a point that it, like anything else, has to pay its dues and prove itself. Or, to summarize: Internets, you've got some 'splainin' to do... (Ignoring your similar argument about self-congratulatory cliques in any form...as in any form I find them off-putting at best.) Of course there are some pockets of cool online, of course of course ... I do think you owe J. Up a little slack, since you're really just suspecting he's *not*, in fact, Maud Newton. Maybe he does spend a healthy amount of his day with his Newsgator and still finds the Internets a crazy ball of mush. Not that there's anything wrong with that ... In the end, if the blogzines and internets want a fair shake, they have to be prepared to get a good spankin' every now and then. The problem isn't that there are some great things on the Internet, but by choosing to stick to the Internet, you've (the general you) also made the choice to only be associated with everything else online... which isn't always awesome. So if you're going to publish the next great American novel on top of a river of crap, you can't be surprised when you have to overcome the overwhelming assumption that you might smell. Perhaps it's not fair ... but that's just the way it is. Some things will never change.In the end it is all just a big ball of nothing, and boils down to personal pride and preference. Do you like the freshy-freshy, or do you prefer a considered and ripe cheese? Or do you prefer, as I imagine many do, a vintage primer with a hooch chaser? Do they have to be the same, comparable or equally appreciated? No, and why would we want them to be? Amen and God Bless America!

by jamelah on

I think I may have more to say, but for now, I just want to point out that Caryn is a genius.Freshy freshy indeed.

by brooklyn on

Well, Caryn, I think your last comment is well-stated and I have to say that in inventing the nickname "J Up" you have achieved something very special. But, I need to point this out: this conversation happened on the internet. Looks like the river of crap has turned up something fresh, yet again.

by firecracker on

Dude, that's only because I'm involved... online or off, I got the freshy freshy.

by Billectric on

Updike's lament isn't so much about the ratio of good to bad writing on the internet verses that of books. He is expressing (a) the loss of something familiar and comforting (actual books), and (b) the loss of jobs due to technology. I don't think it will be as bad as Updike predicts. For one thing, the population is growing. Some of those people will still buy books. A smaller percentage can be a greater number, when a population is growing. People who spend most of their time on the internet might be surprised to know that lots of folks pick up paperback novels in the checkout lines of grocery stores. Not just lame novels, either. I remember buying Capote's In Cold Blood at such a location, and I'm pretty sure they had Updike and Vonnegut, too.The scenario described by Kevin Kelly actually sounds pretty cool to me (I'll explain why in a moment). Updike quotes Kelly:"Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page . . . These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or 'playlists,' as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual 'bookshelves' ? a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these 'bookshelves' will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages."Here's the thing: Not everyone will use the new technology as described above. I envision this as a research tool more than anything. In college, the best professors taught me how to go to the library, look up several sources in the books and journals available, and then come up with an original or semi-original idea, based on the synthesis of the existing works. Sometimes I made photocopies of the pages I needed, to take them home and work on my assignment late into the night, after the library closed. I believe caffeine was involved. Some of these pages piqued my interest to the point that I wanted to read the entire book. I would have never bought the book if I hadn't seen the snippets first. You might say, yeah, but now you could get the whole book online for free! But I don't like sitting at a computer screen for the duration of an entire book. Not even on a laptop. A real book is lot more convenient; you can toss it aside and pick it up again as often as you please, without logging on & off.A friend of mine met an indie punk band at the Warped Tour. The guitar player said his Dad was adamantly against him being in a band at first, calling it a "pipe dream" and decrying the odds against ever "making it big," and urging his son to "learn a practical trade." Finally, the guitarist asked his father, "How much money do you make?" It turns out his Dad earns less than $40,000.00 annually. The young musician said, "Dad, if I could make that much selling CD's, would you approve then?" His father, impressed, said, "Sure."That's how I feel about writing. I really don't expect to become a millionaire. I started to say, "A millionaire like John Updike" but it occurred to me that I don't really know if he's a millionaire. I decided to Google "John Updike's earnings" just to see if the info was available. I didn't find that, but I did find this excellent interview with the man, who grew up during the depression and used to sit and watch his mother trying to become a writer. Updike seems like a cool person. He is not totally wrong - the internet is changing things. My Dad was pissed at computers because they replaced the old typewriters and adding machines - with their springs, gears, levers, and other moving parts - that he made a living fixing.All I can say is, you gotta have hope, John!